We have made it to Poland, via a quick, but restful stop in London. And this post will be long, and filled with pictures, so fair warning. Our first stop in Poland is Warsaw and our very first event, other than a wonderful dinner Saturday night with our British and US traveling partners, was church Sunday morning, with the Anglican Church in Warsaw, under the pastoral care and guidance of the Rev. David Brown, Chaplain.
We were warmly welcomed on a beautiful Sunday morning in the old town of Warsaw. Though it is the old town, it is actually relatively new by European standards. The entire old section is a UNESCO Heritage site, not for its age, but for the fact that it is one of the largest most meticulously rebuilt old towns. During the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, more than 85% of Warsaw’s historic centre was destroyed by Nazi troops. After the war, a five-year reconstruction campaign by its citizens resulted in today’s meticulous restoration of the Old Town, with its churches, palaces and market-place. It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.
It is a vibrant center filled with people on this Sunday morning. And in the midst of it, about 45 English speaking Anglicans worshiped, as they do every Sunday morning, and warmly welcomed us. It proved to be a crossroads of the world on this Sunday too. Sitting in front of me was a diplomat and his family from the Philippines. When I was able to engage them after the service, I found out their hometown is Zamboanga in Mindanao, in the Episcopal Diocese of the Southern Philippines, our companion diocese. Having been there we were able to make that connection. Another “small world” experience.
I met an American at church that has been in Warsaw for a decade, that told me, in all that time, he had never visited the places we are about to, Auschwitz, Treblinka. I asked him why. He said he just wasn’t sure he could do it. I think I understand that to a degree, and I may even more in the days ahead, but I also feel, we are diminished if we don’t fully engage, and confront, the evil part of humanity, encounter up close what our human race is capable of. If there is hope to not succumb ourselves, it would seem, our chances are greatly raised by engaging the mistakes of the past…Bringing ourselves into them…Finding ourselves in the wrong.
The rest of the group, who are mostly from Chicago, flew in Sunday morning, and then picked us up on the bus we will share for the next few days.
We began then in the cemetery of the Warsaw Ghetto. As Rabbi Poupko has stated clearly in the itinerary, “where we are going to meet”, and then he lists people for each day. He believes when we speak of someone who has died, we do not just have them as memory, but we have them as conversation partners too, in other words they actually show up. And with his help, they do!
During the visit I found this, a gift from Seattle.
Here we did meet many famous, and not so famous Jews, who either lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, or lived there before or after. Some asked to come back there to be buried. And in fact, it is still a working cemetery, people are still being laid to rest there. Just to name a few, and I wish I could name them all, Henryk Ehrlick and Victor Alter. They were both Bund activists and were positioned to become part of the Polish Government in exile. Instead they were taken by the Soviets. Ehrlick and Alter were both mysteriously arrested by Stalin and the Soviet government and in a clandestine way, both executed.
While the location of their actual remains are unknown the monument is in this cemetery. You can see Rabbi Poupko speaking from this monument. It is one of the most visited sites in the cemetery and the site of many calls for activism.
We met Esther Rachel Kaminska, the Founder of the Yiddish Theater,
And we met Dr. Lazaro Ludoviko Zamenhof, who believed that world peace would come if we all just spoke one language so he invented one, Esperanto.
and in a wonderful surprise for me, we met Yitzhag Leib Peretz, one of the three great classical Yiddish writers. My “Peretz Reader” has been one of my favorite books since seminary. It was most wonderful meeting him here.
And finally, among the many we met, I have to honor Janusz Korczak, Polish-Jewish Educator, children’s author, and the long time head of an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. He is most notably the author of a Children’s Bill of Rights, taking on, for instance, the use of corporal punishment, in a time when that was widely accepted.
He was granted free passage to safety on many occasions but always chose to stay at the orphanage with his children. When the entire institution was evacuated and deported to Treblinka Extermination Camp, he was right there to go along. I share some of the first accounts,
Joshua Perle, an eyewitness, whose wartime writings were saved in the Ringelblum Archive said the children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy as Korczak and the children made their way through the Ghetto to the deportation point to the death camps.
Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.
— Ghetto eyewitness, Joshua Perle
According to eyewitnesses, when the group of orphans finally reached the deportation point, an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite children’s books and offered to help him escape. In another version, the officer was acting officially, as the Nazi authorities had in mind some kind of “special treatment” for Korczak. Whatever the offer, Korczak once again refused. He boarded the trains with the children and was never heard from again. Korczak’s evacuation from the Ghetto is also mentioned in Władysław Szpilman‘s book The Pianist:
He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…
We went from there to the other side of the ghetto, which is not a large area, and which had at its peak, more than 400,000 inhabitants. On that side, we visited the site of the Warsaw Uprising, and the site of the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto, the fighters, who finally resisted. To this day, they are hailed as the ones that gave Judaism the will to self defense.
We visited then the site of a still standing hospital, the place some few sick Jews were taken to be before being put on the trains, but it is most remembered as the sight where they did board the trains, to begin the perilous and often deadly journey just to be delivered to the death camps.
We ended the day at the site of the large cross erected near the national government buildings and the square where the newly elected Polish Pope, John Paul II, came and addressed millions who showed up that day. He said many things that day but the words he said that are still remembered, and are believed to have galvanized a movement toward solidarity, were these, “Don’t be Afraid.”
On this second day, we left Warsaw, but before we did, we visited one of the last remaining portions of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall. It sits quietly, and rather discreetly, between two apartment buildings, still in use.
From there we left Warsaw and started a very long day, with our first stop Treblinka. I cannot express to you the feeling of walking into the sea of stones, erected to honor and symbolize the people, so many people, 700,000 to 900,000 people who came to their death on this small, small piece of ground. It is second only to Auschwitz for the number that were murdered in one camp.
Unlike Auschwitz, in Treblinka, there were no barracks, because no one was expected to stay overnight. Jews from many nations died here. It is believed that of some 200 that attempted escape, only about 40 made it, all men.
From there we traveled to the town of Tykocin, where there is a synagogue still standing today, being restored, but inactive. This town decided to keep it, to restore it, and one of the marvelous stories we heard is how the local Catholic priest, still serving there today, has taken on making sure some of the Purim plays and other celebrations that Jews celebrate, come to life in this town where so many once lived.
Rabbi Poupko and his wife Tzivia, held me spellbound again as they taught us more about Jewish worship.
We then traveled just a short distance, outside this town, to a forest, and after a 10 minute walk into it, to the most hallowed experience I have had yet on this trip, …..more about that on the next post.
Bless you all,